The Habit Loop – Getting Down to the Basics of Habits

Talking of habits is common, but we sometimes miss the mark in how we think of them. We all know that habits are behaviours that we carry out, but they’re also part of a system interwoven into our lives, called the habit loop. Approaching habits with this in mind is key to effectively controlling them. The four stages of the habit loop – cue, craving, routine, and reward – are what we’ll explore here.

If I asked you to think about habits, what comes to mind? Would it be going on regular morning jogs, waking up early, reading every night – the kind of regular routines that make us feel healthy? This perspective on habits isn’t wrong, but it’s only the tip of the iceberg. By diving further into habits, we can get a greater understanding of why we have the habits we do. 

When we talk about habits as an activity – say, jogging – we’re really talking about a single stage of a process called the habit loopThe habit loop is a neurological background of habits consisting of a series of stages. 

An often-cited MIT study is a great example of this. A rat is placed inside of a maze with chocolate hidden in a corner (Duhigg, 2013). When a door is opened and clicks, this rat is free to seek out the chocolate (Duhigg, 2013). In early trials, the rat slowly and curiously wanders through the maze until they stumble on the chocolate. In later trials, however, they would run directly for the chocolate with almost no conscious thought (Duhigg, 2013). As the running through the maze became automatic, researchers were observing the development of a habit loop.  

All habit loops can be whittled down to four simple stages that you, me, and the rats all experience. Let’s explore them in detail. 

Stage 1: The Cue

The cue triggers the behaviour, and repeated behaviour forms  a habit. For the later-trial rat, this was the “click” from the door, indicating what habit would be required to get the chocolate. James Clear highlights five different forms that cues may take:  

  1. Emotions, like feeling bored and habitually going on social media
  2. Location, like having a specific routine when at your gym
  3. Time, like a morning routine that kicks off at 10:00 am
  4. People, like your behaviour with a particular friend
  5. An immediately preceding event, like the “click” of the rat’s door

These cues all work in slightly different ways, but all initiate the habit loop and bring us to the next stage. 

Stage 2: The Craving 

The craving is a desire that needs to be satisfied. For the rats, it’s a craving for chocolate. The cue and the craving are wired together – when the rat hears the click, they want chocolate. This is what inspires action. 

The next stage is to satisfy the craving by getting the chocolate. 

Stage 3: The Routine 

The routine is the part of the habit loop that we’re familiar with. This is the activity that we want to get “in the habit of doing.” For the rats, this is the hunt for chocolate through the maze. Our brains know what we crave, and they know that a certain routine will satisfy it.  

The routine can take emotional or mental forms as well as physical. In any case, it’s what brings us to the final stage of the loop. 

Stage 4: The Reward 

The reward is what makes the habit loop worthwhile. It tells our brain that the routine that led us to this reward is worth remembering and to repeat it when we experience the same cue. It’s the chocolate we looked for, the elation from our morning jog – really, it’s the dopamine our brains release. 

The rat’s brain knows that when it hears the door click, a specific routine will result in a chocolatey reward. The four stages come together to form the habit loop. Some loops are trickier than others to identify, some are harder to manipulate, but they all boil down to this. 

The Habit Loop in Humans 

The best part of the habit loop is that it eventually becomes subconscious. Brains work hard, and if they can save energy, they will. That’s why habit loops become automatic. Given a particular cue, a corresponding habit loop with a routine known to get the reward is carried out without conscious thought. You hear the click and next thing you know; you have chocolate. 

Of course, it isn’t that easy. It takes weeks of gradual conditioning, depending on the routine. But the idea that we can get ourselves doing something consistently without having to consciously force it is what makes the habit loop worth exploring into.  

This is exciting when it comes to forming new habits. We’re the rats and the scientists: we can create the conditions and carry them out. Think of a routine that you want to pick up, a cue that you can immediately recognize, and a reward to crave. Over time, you’ll automatically be doing the routine when given the associated cue. 

Habit loops are a double-edged sword, though. Unless we consciously try disturbing a bad habit loop, the loop will automatically engage when the cue is present. But if we understand what we want to control, we can manipulate it. For example, I have a bad habit of checking my phone whenever I get hung up on writing. My frustration makes me crave a distraction, getting on Instagram is sure to provide it. In this case, I’d benefit from changing the routine. I know what reward I want; I know what makes me want it, all I need is a new, less harmful, way to get there. 

Check out these articles on habit loops for more information on habit loops:

Duhigg, C. (2013). Habits: How they form and how to break them
Dr. Jud – Habit loops & everyday addictions
Dr. Jud – Introduction to Habit loops

Author: Michael Bacci
Editor: Zac Lo
Researcher: Michael Bacci